Teaching Asian American History is Needed to Understand Complexity of RacismRoundup
tags: racism, teaching history, Asian American History
Kathryn Gin Lum is associate professor of religious studies in collaboration with the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University, and the author of Heathen: Religion and Race in American History.
San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently ushered in the Year of the Tiger by passing a resolution of apology to “all Chinese immigrants and their descendants who … were the victims of systemic and institutional racism, xenophobia, and discrimination.” The cities of Antioch, San Jose and Los Angeles had earlier issued their own formal apologies to Chinese Americans. And New Jersey recently joined Illinois as only the second state to require public schools to teach Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) history.
Many hope that these steps of apology and history education will help to combat the surge in anti-Asian hate. But as important as it is to teach the history of discrimination against people of Asian descent in America and how they have risen above it, it is also essential to teach the history of Asian American prejudice against others and the system of White supremacy that has enabled it. Presenting Asian Americans in all of their complexity as they have sought to negotiate the American racial order can help communities learn from past mistakes, counter model minority stereotypes and build solidarity.
Race in America has tended to operate hierarchically, with groups “ranked” based on their proximity to Whiteness. The stereotypes assigned to different groups effectively work as a divide-and-conquer strategy that can keep non-White groups apart as they contend for access and power. The model minority myth, for instance, places Asian Americans adjacent to Whiteness and has been used as a wedge to prevent interracial solidarities from forming.
But race in America can also operate in a binary that has religious roots in the division of the “heathen” vs. the Christian. The heathen category flattened racial hierarchies by grouping different people together as the “unsaved.” Some classified as heathens found solidarity with other so-called heathens against White Christian colonizers. But others sought to escape the category by claiming a higher position on a civilizational ladder, sometimes deploying racist tropes themselves in the process.
That’s what some Chinese businessmen tried to do in mid-19th century America. Chinese gold-seekers had begun arriving in California in 1848. They faced discriminatory taxes and became the frequent victims of theft and violence. In People v. Hall in 1854, the California Supreme Court ruled that their testimony was impermissible in court, thereby freeing three White men who had been convicted of murdering a Chinese man on the basis of Chinese witness testimony. People v. Hall rendered it virtually impossible for Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants to defend themselves from persecution.
In the face of such hostility, a “young merchant in San Francisco” named Pun Chi wrote “A Remonstrance to Congress” on behalf of other businessmen. Sometime between the mid-1850s and mid-1860s, they presented the document to missionary William Speer to translate and send to Congress. Speer never sent it, but he published it in an 1870 book on China and America, explaining that it “is thoroughly Chinese, and will aid our people to understand the views and feelings of that people.”